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Asian Americans Helped Build Affirmative Action. What Happened?

The idea of proportionality has roots in midcentury Japanese American advocacy.

Mike Masaoka leans back in his chair and gestures as he speaks at a committee hearing.
Mike Masaoka speaking at a Dies Subcommittee hearing on July 6, 1943. Bettmann via Getty Images

On Monday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases challenging admissions practices at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. The plaintiff, Students for Fair Admissions, represents aggrieved Asian American parents and children who believe they have been wrongly excluded by universities using race-conscious policies to achieve greater campus diversity. In the course of questioning, the court’s six conservatives seemed, according to the best guesses of analysts including Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick and Mark Joseph Stern, ready to overturn precedent and rule in favor of the plaintiffs.

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In recent years, Asian Americans have become the poster children for the takedown of affirmative action. It’s an ironic turn of events when we consider that Asian Americans were some of affirmative action’s very earliest architects. In fact, a number of Asian Americans helped launch affirmative action in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s by setting some of the bones of the policy infrastructure. Among them: Mike and Etsu Masaoka (lobbyists), Ina Sugihara (organizer), and John Yoshino (bureaucrat)—sons and daughters of Japanese immigrants who came of age during the home-front upheavals of World War II.

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At the time, their contributions appeared modest and of secondary importance. But these influencers’ efforts had far-reaching implications for minority rights that would come to matter for everyone with a stake in the connections between race and opportunity in the United States. 

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Two key turning points in the history of racial justice emerged in the 1930s and ’40s with the rise of fascism in Europe, setting the stage for the rise of affirmative action. One was the idea of the “minority,” which took hold among liberal social scientists, government officials, and community leaders. They began to conceive of a salient divide splitting the populace into a “majority” (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants) and “minorities” (everyone else). As conflicts in Europe made clear, the existence of “minorities” (as an idea) threatened to undermine a nation’s unity and stability. “Minorities” were not only physically and culturally distinctive, they were targeted by wrongful prejudice and discrimination. To counter this, midcentury liberals championed moral persuasion and robust state intervention to eliminate discriminatory barriers. Their goal: the full assimilation and integration of “minorities.”

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The Black Freedom Movement provided the second key turning point. The movement was the driving force in redefining “rights” from the mid-20th century onward, shifting expectations from equality of opportunity to equality of results. For “minorities,” this looked like integrated military units, housing, and schools.

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Underlying the notion of “minorities” were implicit but crucial questions. Who counts as a bona fide minority? Which groups are sufficiently beleaguered, or subjected to severe patterns of disenfranchisement and discrimination, to warrant government intervention and compensatory justice? The answer was neither self-evident nor agreed upon. Black people were the primary focus of the federal government’s first minority rights efforts. But their calls for rights and equality were capacious enough to allow other groups to benefit.

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For Asian Americans, this advent of the idea of minority rights presented an opening. But it also posed a conundrum. How might they “prove” their status as beleaguered minorities?

In the tense months leading up to the United States’ entry into World War II, Black labor organizer A. Philip Randolph called for a march on Washington to desegregate the military and defense industries. The pressure compelled President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802 in June 1941. The decree banned discrimination on the basis of “race, creed, color, or national origin” in government agencies, companies, and unions contracted for defense work. EO 8802 also established the Committee on Fair Employment Practices, or FEPC, to oversee policy and investigate complaints.

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FEPC held public hearings in Los Angeles in October of that year. The Japanese American Citizens League, a fledgling social welfare/proto-political organization, signed up to air their grievances. JACL National Secretary Mike Masaoka—a self-described “inexperienced cocky youngster”—testified on the employment discrimination faced by Japanese Americans. “We Japanese Americans ask for the right to live, to earn a living, on an equal basis with all other Americans,” he said. “We humbly request that we be given the same chance to serve our country in the defense industries.” JACL testimony led to trade unions, aircraft companies, and shipbuilders pledging to eliminate anti-Japanese bias. FEPC committed to monitoring the outcomes.

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This was real progress. But it short-circuited weeks later when Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and other Allied targets led to the mass removal and imprisonment of Pacific Coast Japanese Americans without due process. Nonetheless, Masaoka’s appearance before FEPC had a long-term impact. It laid conceptual groundwork for state recognition of Japanese Americans and “Orientals” as beleaguered minorities.

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JACL regrouped after World War II. To suture the wounds of traumatic mass removal and imprisonment, the league launched a policy agenda focused on Japanese American rights. Now a seasoned hand, Masaoka took the reins. He had gained a world of experience since his amateur debut in Los Angeles. The government officials who ran the camps had tapped him as a favored consultant. During his stint in the Army, he was assigned to the public relations arm of the famed all-Japanese–American 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

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By then, Masaoka also had no shortage of haters, given his outsize role in urging Japanese Americans to cooperate with federal authorities during the incarceration. Many despised him for championing military service as the means for Japanese Americans to prove their absolute loyalty to the United States. He was widely denounced within the community as a sellout and collaborator. But this very collaboration provided Masaoka and JACL leaders with political capital, the know-how to lay (in Masaoka’s words) “pipelines to the establishment.”

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Masaoka was a quick study who turned out to be a brilliant young political strategist. Once Congress required professional lobbyists to register in 1946, he and his wife Etsu were among the first in line. Bit by bit, Mike, Etsu, and JACL built the case for Japanese Americans as beleaguered minorities: a racial group truly burdened and therefore entitled to compensatory justice such as government assistance and targeted resources.

Masaoka sensed correctly that Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights, convened in 1946 to investigate lynchings of Black Americans and other racial conflicts, provided a high-profile opportunity. He presented copious evidence of Japanese American suffering. The immigrant generation had been shut out of more than 100 occupational fields because of restrictions based on their racial ineligibility for naturalized citizenship. He argued for reparations to Japanese Americans for their wartime losses, naturalization and immigration privileges, and for halting deportations to Japan. The Truman committee’s final 1947 report, To Secure These Rights, endorsed JACL’s policy agenda, essentially acknowledging Japanese Americans as a beleaguered minority. By 1952, Congress granted token reparations and most other items on JACL’s wish list—a stunning pivot from the previous decade. Reader’s Digest hailed Masaoka as “Washington’s Most Successful Lobbyist.”

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The league’s postwar policy agenda also encompassed minority rights writ large. To their credit, the Masaokas and JACL leaders capitalized on this moment to advocate for both Black Americans and Japanese Americans. JACL was a consistent, active member of the liberal civil rights coalition at midcentury. Year after year, JACL showed up for civil rights fights, filing amicus briefs and lobbying members of Congress to support workplace protections, voting rights, and school and housing desegregation. It added its voice to the chorus opposing the filibuster, lynching, and police brutality. In particular, JACL invested heavily in the Black-led campaign to convert the wartime FEPC into a permanent federal agency with robust enforcement authority and broad coverage.

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Ina Sugihara, a firecracker activist, went all-in on this front. Infuriated by the racist treatment endured by California’s “Orientals” and eager to escape the Pacific Coast detention orders, Sugihara moved to New York City during the war. She gravitated toward racial justice organizations, co-founding the Congress of Racial Equality’s New York chapter. CORE, as it was known, spearheaded nonviolent, direct-action tactics to thwart segregation.

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Sugihara channeled much of her irrepressible energy toward realizing a durable, muscular FEPC. She helped jump-start the New York City JACL, the league’s first interracial affiliate and an enthusiastic partaker in the citywide “Save FEPC” coalition. As a contributor to the Crisis, NAACP’s official magazine, Sugihara wrote “Our Stake in a Permanent FEPC” in 1945, an impassioned appeal on behalf of the cause. Catholics, Jews, Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, Mexican Americans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, and refugees—everyone stood to benefit. As she put it, “The fate of each minority depends upon the extent of justice given all other groups.”

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Energetic Asian Americans certainly believed so. JACL, along with a number of other Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino Americans, rallied for state- and municipal-level FEPC laws in New York, California, Utah, Colorado, and Illinois. Twenty-nine states and dozens of cities passed versions of FEPC laws in the postwar decades.

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Congress was a different matter. Between 1945 and 1964, more than 100 FEPC bills were introduced before the House and Senate. Conservatives torpedoed each and every one. The perennial failure of national FEPC legislation rerouted its liberal supporters toward administrative policy experiments to address employment discrimination. These were patchwork approaches by the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy administrations toward the goal of “Equal Employment Opportunity”—early stirrings of what would come to be known as “affirmative action.”

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To accomplish the goal of workplace desegregation, bureaucrats had to decide which groups of “minorities” necessitated state intervention. Black Americans were the obvious choice. But others were not a given.

Luckily for Asian Americans, they had an ally, a bureaucratic insider: John Yoshino, an unassuming social and industrial-relations expert and behind-the-scenes civil rights promoter. (His brief claim to fame in 1961 was helping to desegregate Maryland restaurants that refused to serve African diplomats, which had been a huge embarrassment for the United States’ global reputation.)

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Yoshino served on the staff of Eisenhower’s Committee on Government Contracts and its successor, Kennedy’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. Both units were charged with facilitating nondiscrimination compliance by employers who held contracts or subcontracts with federal agencies. Neither had enforcement powers. They could only persuade employers to do the right thing. The assignment fit him to a T; he sincerely believed that government had a “solemn obligation” to deliver racial justice.

Yoshino’s responsibilities were not specific to Japanese Americans. But his familiarity with his community positioned him as an advocate. He nudged both the Eisenhower and Kennedy committees to collect data on “Orientals” to document their employment troubles—and therefore their beleaguered minority status. The addition may not have been automatic, but it also seemed to be common sense. The committees simply followed in the footsteps of Roosevelt’s FEPC and Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights.

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The Eisenhower and Kennedy staffs had to answer an important question to carry out their mission. How should workplace discrimination be diagnosed and measured? Drawing on strategies piloted by Black activists, Yoshino and his colleagues firmed up the use of statistical data and proportionality logic to assess and solve racial inequities. In this analytical framework, the racial makeup of a given organization—say a factory or corporation—should mirror percentages in the community as a whole. In other words, if minority group X made up 10  percent of the population, then minority group X ought to comprise 10 percent of the employee headcount. One could then look at the numbers and flag any imbalances. The “underrepresentation” of a particular minority group would then trigger corrective interventions such as proactive recruitment, hiring, or promotions.

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The Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy administrations’ trials and errors crystallized fundamentals that would become linchpins of later anti-racist and diversity efforts. These included expectations that the government and other institutions should actively intervene to fix racial discrimination; “minorities” as an expansive, diverse category that can include Asians (though sometimes as an afterthought); proportionality as a desirable goal; quantifiable metrics; and a one-size-fits-all approach—that is, using the same tools to address the harms suffered by various groups at once. These far-reaching, normative assumptions remain with us today, even as they rest on increasingly shaky ground.

Proportionality logic has spawned an unintended consequence for Asian Americans. Over time, and for a host of complicated reasons, Asian Americans came to be regarded widely as “overrepresented,” undermining their claims to beleaguered minority status. This uncertainty helps to explain why Asian Americans have become a wild card in race politics, an unpredictable fit in the majority/minority divide.

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One recent survey from AAPI Data indicates that 69% of Asian American registered voters still support affirmative action. Certainly many Asian American organizations, including the still-in-action Japanese American Citizens League, remain unwaveringly committed to protecting it.

Nonetheless, a vocal subset of Asian Americans—mostly relatively recent immigrants from China—has rallied effectively over the past decade to kill race-conscious admissions. With their persistence and the deep pockets of right-wing funders, affirmative action is likely to face its death knell at the hands of the conservative Supreme Court justices. This emerging cohort of Asian American influencers is quite the opposite of the Masaokas, Sugihara, and Yoshino. Instead of working in solidarity with other communities of color, the newest one has staked a position at odds with them.

Yet the earlier history suggests that the naysayers may not have the last word. When the first Asian American influencers and the midcentury civil rights bloc had their FEPC dreams thwarted, they came up with creative workarounds. Affirmative action was the piecemeal, unforeseen result. Taking inspiration from them, progressives should use this moment to think outside the box of cherished orthodoxies—such as the majority/minority distinction and proportionality logic—to craft untrodden, innovative solutions for racial justice.

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